Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
The Mission of the Twelve
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Since Pentecost, we’ve been working our way through Acts, hearing about how Jesus’ first followers were led by the Holy Spirit to make a broader welcome to Christ’s table. Today, we’re going to shift back into a story from Jesus’ early ministry, a time he returned to his hometown. As Emerson Powery says in his commentary on this passage, Jesus and his disciples had been welcomed and readily engaged in neighboring synagogues in other towns. You might expect that when he returned home, given how successful his earliest public preaching and healing had been, that his hometown synagogue would welcome him. As Dr. Powery notes and as you heard in our reading today, that would not be the case.
I bet that some of this story seems familiar to you, and not just because you’ve heard this Bible story before. Local kid leaves town from some reason, maybe it's for school or for a new job or joined the military or just to go on an adventure. That local kid hardly checks back in with old family or friends. A lot happens while the local kid, is gone, both to that local kid and in her hometown. She grows up. She learns things. She is changed by what she experiences. She comes back to town, not really to visit, but for work, and runs into the people she grew up with. She shares what she has learned and experienced, and it is not at all like what the hometown folks expected. They remember when she was a toddler running around in diapers and teenager who got caught drinking wine coolers behind the high school. They know her family, and all the rumors about her family. There is no way that they could take her seriously, even if she kinda sounds like she knows what she's talking about. They know her too well, they think. There is no way that she can convince them that there is more to her than just the kid they used to know.
Now, she may be surprised at the cold reception she receives upon coming home. Especially if she knows that she has important things to tell people. Especially if she has learned a lot while she was gone and wants to share it. Or... maybe she's not surprised at all. Maybe she knows that her homeplace never treats someone well if they leave, even if they try to come back... especially if they seem really different when they come home. Maybe she’s heard “you can never go home again.” But, she’s willing to try anyway.
In my life, I have heard countless stories of someone who goes away and then comes back, and no one really knows how to act when they return. So often, there are questions like “who do they think they are?” and accusations of “getting above his raisin'.” For all the folks who are happy to see them return, there are just as many who are suspicious. This particular return home, Jesus’ return home, goes so poorly that it almost makes me wonder if they were actually mad that he left. To be fair, they may have a good reason for wondering why in the world he left town. Afterall, C. Clifton Black reminds us in his commentary, Jesus had responsibilities. He was the oldest son. There were six other children. And, there was the family business. Bonnie Bowman Thurston also noted that it appears that Jesus had learned a trade and would likely have been expected to work with or maybe even take over business from Joseph.
I think that some people would argue that you don't just ignore the training you've received when someone else has invested that much time in you. Some people even think that, by this point in Mark, Joseph may have died. Several scholars I read note that he is not mentioned at all in the book of Mark, and Jesus is called the son of Mary, not the son of Joseph, as would have been the custom if Joseph had been alive. If Mary was a widow, and Jesus had been expected to step up as the eldest son, and lead the family, and had, instead, chosen to leave to become an itinerant preacher, more than a few of his neighbors and oldest associates would have disapproved.
Frankly, though, family business drama aside, they might have just been shocked that he seems to feel comfortable speaking in the synagogue. While Jesus would have been highly trained as a carpenter, the skills required to do that job are different from those of the legal scholar and teachers. Most people would have understood religious teachers to have gained wisdom through inspiration rooted in years of study of Scripture and theology. Despite his training and skill as a carpenter, it would not be unreasonable to believe that, if he was taught to read at all, it was primarily so that he could do business, not so that he could spend his time reading ancient theology and philosophy books. Who does he think he is, spouting off his ideas about the reign of God? I can hear the crowd gathered say, “I know his mama. I don't care how wise he sounds. There is no reason he should be able to do what he's doing right now. Who does he think he is?”
In the translation we read today, it says that his former friends and neighbors took offense to him. Bonnie Bowman Thurston tells us that the word in Greek, eskandalizonto, literally means something more like "hearing him made them stumble as though they tripped on a rock." What do you feel like when you trip on something you didn't expect? Embarrassed? Angry? Frustrated that you didn't see the thing that tripped you in the first place? Hurt because you fell on your face and now you feel foolish in front of people you needed to impress? The thing about stumbling on a rock is that you almost never know that the rock is there until the moment you trip on it. And, the rock almost always changes your course in some way, whether you want to change course or not. What the author of Mark was saying is that Jesus' presence and new-found wisdom was so surprising to the people in his hometown that it knocked them flat on their faces, just as surely as if they had tripped on a rock. And, they were not happy about that in the least.
I suspect that Jesus' old friends and neighbors aren't the only ones have certain ideas about who Jesus is and who God is. I also suspect that they aren't the only ones who get mad when these expectations are upended. We all have ideas about the Divine that often seem pretty firm and unshaking. Maybe we learned them in our religious communities. Maybe they came to us through our own personal study or through the broader culture in which we live. I don't know about you, but, I don't particularly enjoy it when I stumbled upon a Holy rock and end up flat on my face. I've often been embarrassed, angry, and frustrated that I didn't see the rock until the very moment that I tripped over it, and had to learn something new about God, whether I wanted to or not.
Verse 6 tells us that Jesus is amazed by their disbelief. This is the kind of amazement that is shaped by despair. He does not begrudge them a certain level of shock. After all, much has happened to him since he left. And, he is likely telling them something about the reign of God that many would find a scandal. What dismays him is that they are so locked into their idea of who they think he is... Mary's son, the carpenter, the oldest boy who ran off... that they can’t see the new gift that he is bringing them. In her commentary, Dr. Thurston notes that Jesus tried to bring healing and light back to his hometown, but they were so stuck in their old expectations around who he was that they could not hear new word of God's love and compassion that he brought them. Only a few people could hear his word of healing love and be cured. The rest were so mad that they stumbled when they saw a version of him that they didn't know that they missed out on the Gospel.
Fortunately, the poor reaction of his hometown did not stop Jesus from preaching and teaching. In his commentary, Emerson Powery notes that, once Jesus said that his ministry was that of a prophet, he was asserting an identity that placed him in, what Powery calls, “a long line of countercultural figures in Israel.” He knew his religious history and what people’s responses to prophets often was. Even if he was dismayed at his hometown’s response, it didn’t stop him from continuing his ministry and sending his disciples out on behalf of the Holy Spirit. He teaches them how to be good guests of the people who offer them hospitality. He tells them to rely on God (sometimes through human hospitality, sometimes through the Holy Spirit acting within them) rather than intense preparation to do their mighty works. If the Gospel can’t live and breathe in one place, they will travel somewhere that it can. When our own plans get thwarted, may we be as willing as Christ was to make new ones. Great healing and fellowship might await us in the next place we go, even if it’s not in the first place we go looking. Prophets may not be welcomed in their hometown, but disciples can still proclaim the gospel along the way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2502
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001).
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14-2/commentary-on-mark-61-13-5
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.